Cross-National Comparative Research

Cross-National Comparative Research

This module explains cross-national comparative research and its uses.

Learning Objectives

  • Define and describe cross-national comparative research and its uses
  • Describe the types of cross-national comparative research
  • Discuss the factors that should be considered when conducting cross-national research


 Cross-national comparative research is a type of research methodology, used commonly in the social sciences, that seeks to make comparisons across different countries and/or cultures. Broadly speaking, cross-national research may be described as any research that transcends national boundaries. It is research that aims to examine phenomena or issues in two or more countries to compare different socio-cultural settings, including institutions, customs, traditions, value systems, lifestyles, thought patterns, and so forth. The purpose of such studies is to identify, analyze and attempt to explain the differences and similarities between countries and cultures. The goal is to provide a deeper understanding of different societies, their structures and their institutions. 

There are different types of cross-national comparative studies, depending on the phenomena or issue being studied. In some studies, the nation’s themselves are the objects of the study. For example, a researcher may want to study the differences between the Germany and France on a large scale or some aspect, such as their education systems. On a somewhat different note, the countries may become the backdrop setting for studying a particular topic, such the differences between welfare programs in capitalistic and socialist governments.  Sometimes the countries become part of a category of nations chosen for a specific characteristic. An example would be studying economic indicators in countries grouped by the number of exports and imports they have. 

There are numerous approaches to conducting cross-national comparative research once the research question and the type of study has been identified. The descriptive or survey method is generally the most used approach. This approach uses surveys to create a description of the phenomena or issues being studied. Sometimes a juxtaposition approach is used, and the data collected is simply presented side-by-side with no effort to make comparisons. Other times, the research is intended to be explanatory in nature and the data is systematically compared and analyzed. Other approaches relate to how the researchers themselves are organized. Sometimes, researchers from different countries collaborate on a project which can present challenges in terms of uniform data collection but ensures that researchers are very knowledge about the country where the data is being collected. These international research teams present an opportunity for researchers to expand their knowledge base and learn new techniques. Other times, especially when there are only a few countries involved, a single researcher or research team will collect the data in all the countries. This helps to ensure consistency but does require that the researchers have considerable knowledge about each of the countries. There are a variety of approaches to organizing a cross-national comparative study, but overall, in recent years, these studies are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature.

Regardless of which type of study the researcher is conducting and what approach he or she chooses, there are several factors to consider when conducting cross-national comparative research. These include the following:

  • Language and cultural factors, including differences in research strategies and administration, may present barriers that must be considered.
  • The selection of the countries may affect the quality of the data and its use in comparability studies. The mix of countries plays an important role in the success of the study.
  • Financial resources for research studies vary greatly from country to country. A topic that is of interest in one country may not be of interest in another country and may add to the funding difficulty.
  • If the researchers will be traveling to collect their own data, international travel funding can be costly.
  • Collaborations with other researchers can be difficult, especially with language and cultural considerations. Finding effective lines of communications, ways to conduct meetings, and means for sharing data are important considerations to make the project run smoothly.
  • If analyzing existing data is part of the research study, it may be difficult to find comparable data sets from other countries depending on the nature of the data being sought.
  • If collecting data through surveys and other means, there may be cultural interference that affects the way the participants respond to the survey.
  • It is important to keep the number of countries small to manage the study effectively.


Suggested Readings

Collier, D. (1993). The comparative method. Political Science: The State of Discipline II, Ada W. Finifter, ed., American Political Science Association.
Lijphart, A. (1971). Comparative politics and the comparative method. American political science review, 65(03), 682-693.
Hantrais, L. (1999). Contextualization in cross-national comparative research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 2(2), 93-108.
Hantrais, L., & Mangen, S. P. (Eds.). (1996). Cross national research methods. A&C Black.
Harkness, J. A., Van de Vijver, F. J., & Mohler, P. P. (2003). Cross-cultural survey methods (Vol. 325). Hoboken: Wiley-Interscience.
Harvey, P. H., & Pagel, M. D. (1991). The comparative method in evolutionary biology (Vol. 239). Oxford: Oxford university press.
Pagel, M. D. (1992). A method for the analysis of comparative data. Journal of theoretical Biology, 156(4), 431-442.
Ragin, C., & Zaret, D. (1983). Theory and method in comparative research: Two strategies. Social forces, 61(3), 731-754.
Ragin, C. C. (2014). The comparative method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies. Univ of California Press.
Van de Vijver, F., & Leung, K. (1997). Methods and data analysis of comparative research. Allyn & Bacon.

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